On the heels of a four-game sweep at the hands of Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) West-leading team Mercyhurst last weekend, and losers of five straight games, the Slippery Rock University baseball team needed to return to its winning ways Friday afternoon in a home doubleheader against perennial PSAC rival Indiana University (Pa.), and get back to its winning ways, the team did: SRU won both of Friday’s games behind stellar performances from starting pitchers and timely hitting from the offense.
“We played Mercyhurst tough and we knew they would be tough games but again, you get an opportunity to sweep someone, and it’s tough,” Rock head coach Jeff Messer said of winning the first two games versus IUP. “The first game is probably the most important one, because it sets the tone for the whole weekend.”
In game one against the Crimson Hawks, Slippery Rock sent junior ace pitcher Alex Pantuso to the mound. Pantuso has been one of the premier starting pitchers in the conference this season. Heading into Friday’s start, Pantuso had pitched 32.1 innings, giving up only 14 earned runs while striking out 51 opposing batters.
To oppose Pantuso, IUP sent out freshman Nick Kuhn to make the first start of his collegiate career. Messer said that they had prepared to face IUP’s ace, sophomore Jeff Allen, and were surprised to see Kuhn get the start.
“We were all geared up to face Allen, who’s one of the better pitchers in the conference,” Messer said. “We found out (Allen was not starting) and I didn’t even tell our players. We did not want to take whoever they pitched in game number one for granted.”
Against Kuhn, Pantuso set the tone in game one just as Messer wanted, throwing a complete seven-inning game, scattering five hits and one run while striking out eight IUP batters.
To his credit Kuhn, whose longest outing before Friday had been three innings, held the Green and White offense scoreless for the first two innings, but the second time through the order The Rock hitters started to get to him.
Junior shortstop Joe Campagna led off the bottom of the third with a single and advanced to second on a groundout. Then junior third-baseman Matt Mandes walked on four pitches and senior outfielder Jimmy Divosovic hit a ball sharply at the IUP second baseman that he could not handle. Campagna scored, Mandes advanced to third and Divosevic was safe at first. Then junior outfielder Luca Fuscardo hit a ball through the right side of the infield, scoring Mandes, and junior catcher Tyler Walters reached on an infield single, scoring Divosevic and giving SRU a 3-0 lead.
IUP scored their lone run of the game in the top of the fourth, but The Rock responded with a Walters sacrifice fly in the bottom of the fifth and a Mandes three-run home run, the first of his career, to seal the 7-1 game one victory.
Messer said that Mandes, who has been competing for playing time all year, is the team’s best defensive third-baseman so when they can get some offense out of his bat it is just a bonus.
For game two, Messer decided to skip over the usual game-two starter, senior Preston Falascino, and instead sent the usual game-three starter, Matt Gordon, to the mound.
Messer said that Pantuso and Falascino are similar pitchers, both throwing high-velocity fastballs ad hard sliders, and he wanted to use Gordon, who throws a slower fastball, a curveball and a change up to give the IUP hitters a different look.
“We just thought the match-up when they face Alex (Pantuso), they probably aren’t going to see anybody throwing as hard so that second guy, if they see somebody who’s only a couple miles per hour below, it’s a little bit easier to hit,” Messer said. “So we though ‘let’s go with somebody that throws a lot off-speed.”
Gordon, a junior, had made a string of good starts coming into the game, giving up four or fewer earned runs and going at least five innings in each of his last four starts.
Gordon kept The Crimson Hawks scoreless through the first five innings, giving The Rock offense enough time to do its damage. In the bottom of the second inning, the Green and White loaded the bases thanks to a hit-by-pitch, a walk and a would-be sacrifice bunt that the IUP defense could not field cleanly. With the bases loaded, Mandes worked a seven-pitch walk to score the game’s first run. Two batters later, with the bases still loaded, Fuscardo singled in two more runs, followed by another Walters sacrifice fly to push the lead to 4-0.
That score would stand until the sixth inning when IUP slugger Dan Sepic hit a tw- run home run off Gordon to pull within two runs. Sepic leads IUP with six on the season.
Gordon finished the sixth and came back out to start the seventh inning, but it was apparent he was at the end of his rope. Gordon gave up a hit and hit a batter to put two runners on base with one out before being relieved by senior pitcher Josh Coleman.
Coleman faced two batters, giving up an RBI single and striking out a batter before sophomore Wyatt Daugherty came in to finish off the game with Sepic back-up. Daugherty fell behind Sepic 3-1, but got Sepic to get under the next pitch, flying it harmlessly to Fuscardo in left field to close out the game.
Messer said that the plan was always to use Daugherty to face Sepic in the ninth, if his spot in the batting order came back up.
“I told (pitching) coach (John) Kovalik that if we get to Sepic, it’s 100 percent we’re going match-up with Wyatt (Daugherty),” Messer said. “(Daugherty) has a hard slider and he made a couple good pitches. They were balls, but they were sliders in the dirt and Sepic didn’t go after them and then 3-1, that’s a hitter count, and so I was a little bit worried there. But Wyatt’s done it all year for us, he’s done a great job.”
Campagna, Fuscardo and junior second baseman Mitchell Wood led the team in hits on the day, all with three, while Mandes led with four runs batted in. Fuscardo and Walters both chipped in three runs batted in as well. Fuscardo is playing on a bum hamstring, according to Messer, that is limiting his running ability.
The Rock will conclude the series versus IUP with another doubleheader Saturday before returning home next Tuesday to play out-of-conference games against Bloomsburg University.